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THEATER REVIEW / 'A TUNA CHRISTMAS' : 'Greater' Sequel Truly a Hoot for All Seasons : A small town's drawling misfits are rendered with satirical precision in Pasadena Playhouse production reuniting original stars.

September 30, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It might seem a bit early for gaudy tree ornaments and tacky yard displays, but watching the redneck residents of Tuna, Tex., gear up for what they hope will be "The Whitest Christmas Ever" is a guaranteed hoot any time of year.

Tuna is a small town in the worst (and most hilarious) sense, boasting a population of drawling misfits rendered with merciless satirical precision in "A Tuna Christmas."

Take Didi Snavely, owner of Snavely's Used Weapons ("If We Can't Kill It, It's Immortal"), who invites radio listeners to stock up with weaponry for the home, the car, and the workplace. In the event that crime intrudes on this joyous season, she cautions, "Wouldn't you rather shoot someone than watch them run off with your new toaster?"

What else would you expect in a town where the local radio station call letters are "OKKK," and the local theater boldly resets classics like "Medea" in Mississippi (where Medea's husband: "Dumps her for a waitress from Cincinnati, forcing her to strangle her kids rather than let them grow up with a Yankee stepmother.")?

As those who've made the previous journey to "Greater Tuna" already know, its inhabitants are brought to life by just two performers whose versatility is the key to a successful staging.

The Pasadena Playhouse production at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre reunites "Tuna's" co-creators (stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, and director Ed Howard) for a sequel that's every bit as funny as the original.

But you needn't have seen "Greater Tuna" to appreciate the sequel's 22 oddball characters, their tightly scripted punch lines, and the lightning-fast offstage costume changes with which Williams and Sears don these multiple personalities.

Just as impressive is the range of these personalities--meticulously detailed from their garish outfits (credit Linda Fisher's mischievous costume designs) to their unconscious mannerisms, each character is frighteningly complete.

One look at Williams' Vera Carp, the husky-throated matron shrouded in white furs who spearheads the local cultural watchdog group (Smutsnatchers) is enough to send us into hysterics.

The wiry, intense Williams also excels as Stanley Bumiller, the surly juvenile delinquent, and Didi Snavely, the cigarette-puffing munitions dealer.

Sears uses his bulkier presence to great effect as Stanley's Aunt Pearl, one of the show's masterpieces. Her soft-spoken, unflappable demeanor masks the nasty malice revealed as she takes matter-of-fact pot shots at birds (and underhanded swipes at her neighbors).

Not all the inhabitants of Tuna are vicious, however. Sears and Williams also have obvious affection for the Tuna residents, despite their foibles.

There's a sympathetic charm to the Humane Society's Petey Fisk (Williams), whose lot in life is to be bitten, trampled, and abused by the exotic pets he ends up with. Yet he's always there for his critters ("I know iguanas are prone to depression," he tells Paula, "but you're gonna end up with a zipper and a snap if you don't lighten up.").

Then there's Didi's henpecked husband (Sears), who finally gets the last laugh on those who scoffed at his reported UFO sightings.

And the piece even ends on a touching note as long-suffering Bertha Bumiller (Sears) finds some measure of comfort in a romantic slow dance with local deejay Arles Struvie.

"It's the way them radio tube lights bounce off your bouffant," he tells her sweetly.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"A Tuna Christmas," performed through Oct. 10 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 East Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $28.50. For reservations or further information, call 963-0761.

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